What are the Four Cardinal Virtues?


What are they? Why are they “cardinal”? Where do they come from? Who decided on them? And why should I care?

In the great movie, Gladiator, the whiny son of the emperor is complaining to his dad…

“You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but… there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn’t want me for your son.” – Commodus

Well, Commodus, there’s a reason your virtues weren’t on his list.

The four cardinal virtues are:

1. Prudence (Wisdom)
2. Justice
3. Fortitude
4. Temperance

(Note: Tolerance is not one of them.)

They are “cardinal” because they are pivotal and foundational. The word cardo means hinge. Therefore, the cardinal virtues are the principal point on which all other moral virtues turn and come from.

These four cardinal virtues have been derived from various sources and are no doubt found in many different forms and terms within the Old Testament of the Bible. Socrates (469-399 BC) mentions them in various forms too. But it was Plato that first enumerated the system from which the four cardinal virtues would spring. And it was – most notably – St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and later St. Thomas Aquinas who would further refer, support, and expound upon them within Christianity helping to make them cornerstones of Western Philosophy.

These should be important to us because, as the Catechism says, “They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.”

Here’s a little more wisdom from the Catechism on the Four Cardinal Virtues (CCC 1804-1809):

Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.

The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.

The cardinal virtues

Four virtues play a pivotal role and accordingly are called “cardinal”; all the others are grouped around them. They are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “If anyone loves righteousness, [Wisdom’s] labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice, and courage.” These virtues are praised under other names in many passages of Scripture.

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. “The Lord is my strength and my song.” “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: “Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart.” Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: “Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites.” In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.”

“To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).”

Next week we’ll talk about the Three Theological Virtues.

7 comments Add comment

Bert July 17, 2009 at 4:14 pm

If you haven’t already, Peter Kreeft’s book “Back to Virtue” is a phenomenal read

Jim Oberschmidt July 20, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Another great read is ” the Go-Giver ” by Bob Burg and David Mann.

nick September 25, 2009 at 7:16 pm

This was awesome

Abidakun busuyi felix April 15, 2013 at 12:07 am

is the virtues only about biblcal explanations?

Peter July 13, 2013 at 2:26 am

Wow, this is great wisdom, i am trying to imagine a society of people living and practicing the cardinal virtues…. It would be a good one isnt it? But our world today is full of corruption, and the related, who cares about the common good, justice etc? Could we do something in the training of young peple such that these virtues are incalcated in their system of life? I am afraid that today the virtues have become vices and vices have become common place!!!

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